There are a lot of pet foods on the shelves today; it makes it very hard to know which one is best. Especially when you’re hearing from your next door neighbor’s best friend’s cousin’s mom some very untrue pet food garble. There is also so much on those pet food labels, how are you supposed to know what it means? So today my friends we are going to debunk myths and enlighten your minds. Welcome to Pet Food Education 101!

To understand what food is best, one must first understand what nutrients are required by the body for each life stage. Hang in there, here is where the boring stuff begins.

Energy Producing Nutrients
Energy producing nutrients come from Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats. So let’s start at the top and break down the Proteins. Protein is made up of 23 amino acids and broke down into 2 categories, Essential Amino Acids and Non-Essential amino Acids. Taurine is an Essential Amino Acid that is specifically required for cats in their diet. A deficiency could result in dilated cardiomyopathy, retinal atrophy or infertility. Essential Amino Acids MUST be present in food to manufacture a protein. An animal can manufacture Non-Essential Amino Acids themselves if it is not available in the body. Dogs can synthesize 10 amino acids; cats can synthesize 11 amino acids. For those of you that don’t know, to synthesize protein is basically a chemical equation; if you really want to be confused, Google it! Proteins are constituent of muscle, hair, blood, organs, etc.; it forms hormones and enzymes. Excess protein will be burned for energy only after it has been used for building body tissues & facilitating certain hormonal processes and other body functions. Energy derived from protein is LESS efficient versus energy derived from Fats and Carbohydrates. Cats are carnivores and have a higher protein requirement than dogs, because they use a certain amount of protein for energy.

Now let’s address Carbohydrates, whose primary function is for energy. Carbohydrates also have 2 categories which are based on digestibility, Soluble and Insoluble. Soluble are digestible carbs primarily composed of monosaccharides and disaccharids such as glucose and sugar beet. For those of you who need some definitions; Monosaccharides: a sugar like sucrose or fructose that does not hydrolyse to give other sugars; the simplest group of carbohydrates. Disaccharids: any of a variety of carbohydrates that yield two monosaccharide molecules on complete hydrolysis. Soluble supply calories to a diet and can be used immediately for energy. Insoluble is an indigestible carbohydrate, primarily composed of polysaccharides, such as starch, lignin, and peanut hulls (fiber). Another definition for you; Polysaccharide: any of a class of carbohydrates whose molecules contain chains of monosaccharide molecules. Insoluble is the portion of a plant that resists digestion and can provide satiety and bulk to a diet. Fiber and other insoluble carbs aid in regulating blood glucose levels. Fiber is also used in pet foods to increase bulk and promote satiety during periods of weight loss and weight control.

Last of our Energy Producing Nutrients is Fats. Fats provide the most concentrated source of energy for pets. It also enhances the palatability and caloric density of pet foods. It is required by the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E, & K for absorption, transportation, and storage. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are the building blocks of fat. They are classified as saturated and unsaturated. EFAs are essential for maintaining the skin and coat. They are also required for the synthesis of cell membranes, prostaglandins, and sex hormones. Three particular EFAs: Linoleic Acid, Arachidonic Acid, and Linolenic Acid, are required for normal metabolism. Cats require Linoleic and Arachidonic Acid, where as dogs require Linoleic and Linolenic Acid. Although, in regards to the dogs requirements, one can be reconstructed from the other, it requires a difficult synthetic pathway; therefore both are deemed as essential. EFAs are important in temperature regulation, protection of internal organs, and immune system function. Fatty Acid deficiency could cause dermatological problems as well as impair wound healing. Increased dietary fat requirements usually occur during periods of growth, lactation, or increased physical activity. Excess fat consumption could result in weight gain or obesity if not monitored, and diarrhea or steatorrhea (fatty stools) due to the body’s inability to digest or absorb excess fat.

Non-Energy Producing Nutrients
Are you still hanging in there? We are almost done with the smart stuff and eventually will get the “Oh, I didn’t know that” stuff. There are three Non-Energy Producing requirements we are going to talk about and break down: Water, Minerals, and Vitamins.

Water is the most essential nutrient required by the body for survival. It is needed for almost all metabolic processes. Total daily water requirements will vary depending on such factors as environmental temperature, physical activity, metabolism, diet, lactation, and illness. Water makes up about 70% of adult body weight; but don’t think you can start blaming your pet’s obesity on that. Grave illness or death could result if as little as 10% of body water is lost, scary right? This is why fresh water must be available at all times, especially for dogs housed outside in the winter where there is risk of water freezing, or extreme heat too. Water is essential for the absorption of water-soluble vitamins B complex and C. The quantity of water in pet foods varies: Dry kibble 10% to 12%, Semi-moist 25% to 40%, and Canned 72% to 82%. Animals eating canned food will appear to drink less because they obtain a large portion of their daily requirement from their diet.

Alright, next we have Minerals; although the total percent of minerals in the body is less than 1%, they are essential for metabolic processes to take place. Minerals like other categories are also broke down into 2 categories: Macrominerals and Microminerals. Macrominerals dietary requirements are expressed in perecentages (%). They consist of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, etc. Macrominerals aid in marinating electrolyte and water balance, skeletal integrity, muscle and nerve conduction, and cellular function. Microminerals daily requirements are expressed in parts per million (ppm). They are also known as trace minerals such as: iron, copper, zinc, and iodine. They are involved in the majority of biochemical reactions in the body. A close interrelationship exists between minerals; any excess of one or more minerals could result in the deficiency of others. Mineral supplementation is contraindicated if a quality, balanced diet is provided. Minerals have many functions and any deficiencies or excesses could be harmful to an animal.

Last we have Vitamins. Vitamins function as enzymes, coenzymes, and enzyme precursors. They are classified by solubility. Water soluble vitamins are B complex and C. These are not stored in the body and a deficiency may occur during periods of excessive water loss, such as frequent urination, diarrhea, or gastrointestinal disorders. Fat soluble vitamins are A,D,E, and K. They are stored in fat or in the liver; excesses of these vitamins could be toxic. Cats have specific vitamin requirements other than dogs. In their diet, they require preformed vitamin A, they also require the B vitamin niacin because they cannot convert tryptophan, an amino acid, to naiacin. Dogs can convert beta-carotene derived from plant sources to vitamin A, which cats cannot.

Nutritional requirements vary greatly between each life stage, and proper nutrition will result in a happier, healthier pet over its lifetime. Please contact your veterinarian for additional information on specific requirements for gestation, lactation, growth (puppy/kitten), adult, and geriatric.

Pet Food Labels
Ah, what you all have been waiting for, some golden knowledge. Pet food labels will never truly reflect the quality or nutritional value of its contents. If you are super thrifty then you won’t mind doing some math to save some money. Calculating the daily feeding costs is beneficial when comparing a poor quality, low-density product with a premium-quality, calorically dense product. Often the cost per day is less for the premium food and lasts longer because of the caloric density and digestibility. Check out the chart below to do some calculation.



Diet A

Diet B


Cost per 40 lb bag (640 oz)




Cost per pound of diet (A/40)




Cost per ounce (B/16oz)




Ounces/cup (by weighing 1 cup of food)




Feeding amounts in ounces/day(based on feeding guide on bag)

17.5oz (5cups)

7.5oz (2.5 cups)


Days bag will last (640oz bag/E)




Cost per day (C X E)




Cost per year (G X 365 days)



In the U.S., regulation of pet foods is by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Agriculture. U.S. law says that the following must be on the pet food label: product name, designator, net weight, ingredients, guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, feeding guide, and manufacturer or distributor. Now some of you are probably wondering what some of these things mean, be patient and I will tell you. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an association established by animal feed control officials as a regulating body to develop standards for uniformity of definitions, policies for manufacturing, labeling, distribution, and sale of animal feeds.

Guaranteed analysis (GA) provides minimum or maximum percentages (%) of certain nutrients that the manufacturer claims the product meets. Crude protein expressed as minimum %, crude fat expressed as minimum %, Crude fiber maximum %, and moisture expressed as maximum %, are required to be on the guaranteed analysis. Other nutrients added to the label are at the manufacturer’s discretion. Definition time, crude is a term to describe the analytical procedure used to estimate the nutrients. The guaranteed analysis should not be used to compare products, because values indicated do not reflect exact amounts, only minimums and maximums of a nutrient. Since the guaranteed analysis also includes the moisture content of the product the nutrient value indicated is diluted in moisture, so a canned food may appear to have a lower percent of nutrients than a dry product because of the amount of water. Manufactureres should provide nutrients listed on a dry matter basis (DMB) for comparison and accurate values.

AAFCO established guidelines that U.S. manufactures attempt to meet for nutrient profiles for cats and dogs. Nutritional adequacy statements are based on feeding trials, such as that of AAFCO or through a calculation method. Statement about meeting or exceeding standards without feeding trials are based on a chemical analysis and do not verify the digestibility or true adequacy of a product. Statements help determine if the product is for a specific purpose, such as “Complete and balanced for puppies” A product with an all-purpose statement, such as “Meets the requirements for the life of your pet” could have nutrient deficiencies or excess for a particular life stage, because it was formulated for every life stage. Therapeutic diets, snacks, and treats do not require nutritional statements.

I hear all the time about people feeding their pet holistic food. What do pet food label terms such as “natural”, “holistic”, “premium”, and “human grade” mean? Many of the terms used to describe pet foods on labels and in advertising materials are not legally defined. For example, there is no regulatory meaning for the terms holistic, premium, ultra- or super-premium, gourmet, or human grade. The term “human grade” in particular is used frequently; however, there is no official definition and pet foods are manufactured under FDA authority and not subject to USDA inspection as are human foods. Unlike foods for human consumption and feeds intended for food-producing animals, there are no regulations in place for “organic” pet foods at this time. Until such regulations are in place, those for human foods are being applied to pet foods. The term “natural” does have a legal meaning when applied to a food or ingredient, which is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as: “derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” AAFCO specifies that the term is used only to describe products for which all of the ingredients and components of ingredients meet this definition. An exception is made to allow the use of chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, or other trace nutrients to allow the food to be nutritionally complete and balanced; however, a disclaimer must be present. So basically you’re buying an idea.

I hear people say all the time “it’s the first ingredient on the list”. Who cares, it doesn’t mean anything. The ingredient panel is listed in descending order by weight, starting with the heaviest ingredient first. Ingredients with high water content will appear higher on the panel, even if they are of poor nutrient value. Are you paying attention? Here comes an important one. Manufacturers can alter ingredients so that a more desirable ingredient will appear higher on the panel. Also the same ingredient can be described in various forms, such as wheat middling, cracked wheat, whole wheat, and flaked wheat. Manufacturers do this so that it makes an ingredient appear to be in smaller quantities in the diet, even though when combined it forms a large percent of the diet, tricky tricky! AAFCO determines what is meant by terms such as meat byproducts, but it is difficult to know what ingredients were actually used unless you contact the manufacturer directly. Meat byproducts could be anything, such as liver, lungs, udders, tongues, etc. The ingredient list should not be used as a mode of comparison, because two ingredient panels could be identical and there is no way to determine the quality or digestibility of the ingredients that each manufacturer uses.
Here is some fun “Rules” to know when shopping for pet food. The “95%” rule: means such foods as “Tuna for cats” or “Beef for dogs, any food that is called “X” meat for some species must be at least 95% that named item. The “Dinner” rule: If a food is called a dinner, meal, platter, entrĂ©e, formula, recipe, etc., then any ingredient in the name must be 25% of that food. For example, “Beef Dinner” should contain 25% beef or “Lamb and Rice Meal” should be 25% lamb and rice. The “With” rule: If a product name says “Dog food with beef” or any food that says “with X”, that food must contain 3% of that named food. Lastly the “Flavor” rule: Any food that states “BBQ flavored dog food” or “Chicken flavored cat chow”, must contain that flavoring that can be recognized by your pet.

Formulas of food can be fixed or variable. A fixed formula means that every bag purchased has the same ingredients as the previous bag; a fixed formula food tends to be of higher quality, more expensive and more digestible ingredients. Variable formula foods ingredients may change from batch to batch based on the ingredient availability and market price.

Home Cooked, Raw Diets or Manufactured
Let’s talk a bit about a little annoyance I have, Raw Diets. Because I cannot say it any better I have taken this information from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. “Are raw pet foods better than canned or kibble foods? Raw diets, both home-prepared and commercial, have become more popular. Advocates of raw diets claim benefits ranging from improved longevity to superior oral or general health and even disease resolution. Often the benefits of providing natural enzymes and other substances that may be altered or destroyed by cooking are also cited. However, proof for these supposed benefits is currently restricted to testimonials, and no published peer-reviewed studies exist to support claims made by raw diet advocates. No studies have examined differences in animals fed raw animal products to those fed any other type of diet with the exception of looking at the effects on digestibility. Typically raw meats are slightly more digestible than cooked meat. There are risks and concerns associated with the feeding of raw diets. One of these is the risk of nutritional imbalances, which is a reality for both home-prepared and commercial raw meat diets. Another important risk is related to bacterial or parasitic contamination. Of course, food poisoning is also a major concern for people, and the public health aspects of feeding raw foods to pets cannot be overlooked. Safe and proper handling of raw foods is crucial for reducing the risk. At this time, the vast majority of claimed benefits of feeding raw foods remain unproven, while the risks and consequences have been documented. It is best to discuss the choice of feeding raw foods with your veterinarian so that an informed decision can be made with regard to your pet’s diet.

Commercially available pet foods have been used successfully for years. There are many kinds of foods available, from canned to dry. Some are complete and balanced and others are meant for supplemental or intermittent feeding. Safety problems, with regard to nutritional adequacy and toxin/microbiological contamination, are occasionally documented in both commercial foods as well as home-prepared human foods. Most manufacturers use sophisticated mechanisms for quality control and food safety, including screening and reporting systems. As such, commercial foods remain a consistent, safe, and healthful option for feeding pets.

Some owners with pets that have particular health problems may wish to take part in the management of their pet’s condition by providing a home cooked diet, even if a commercially available diet would be appropriate. These owners may have a belief that a home cooked diet is safer, more natural, or more healthful than a commercially available diet. They may wish to avoid certain ingredients such as grains, chemical preservatives, or by-products, or to include certain ingredients such as specific protein or fat sources. Other owners wish to feed their pets according to their own philosophical views, and choose home prepared diets that are vegetarian, organic, or raw.

Another common reason owners feed a home cooked diet is when a pet refuses commercially available diets. In some pets, this is a learned behavior while in others it may be the result of a food aversion secondary to a disease condition such as kidney failure. Finally, pets may have a particular combination of diseases for which no suitable commercial diet exists. In these cases, a home prepared diet can be an appropriate solution.

In general, home prepared diets are more expensive than commercially available diets. Of course, they are also more time consuming to prepare. There are many recipes for home prepared pet diets available on the Internet and in books; however, the vast majority of these are inadequate and unbalanced. The recipes are either vague in instruction, contain errors or omissions in formulation, incorporate potentially problematic ingredients, or feature outdated strategies for addressing specific disease conditions. They may also lack specificity about the exact amount to feed a particular size of pet. If you wish to prepare your pet’s food at home, consider getting a customized recipe and consultation with a board certified veterinary nutritionist.”

So in conclusion, you have now been educated! Always remember to talk to your veterinarian about foods or questions you may have.

By Elizabeth Fellows C.V.T